Books for Soldiers

A few months ago, I donated almost 300 books to the Books For Soldiers program. It felt good, but the process was a bit complicated. In order to help others feel as good, I’m going to go over the complete soup-to-nuts procedure for donating books in the same way.

Please feel free to “boost the signal” and re-post this information.

Everything in this blog post can be found in the web sites for BooksForSoldiers and US Post Office. However, the information is scattered all over the sites. Here it’s in one place. This procedure is current as of December 2010. Things change. Be sure to confirm the details before mailing off any packages.

Part One: Connect with the soldiers’ needs.

Register on the BooksForSoldier forums. If you don’t do this, you won’t know for what books the soldiers are asking nor where to send them.

– Download a PDF file containing the BFS application and print it out. You have to sign a statement that says you won’t break military regulations or misuse information that soldiers put on the site, and tell them a bunch of personal details (name, address, etc.). Yes, this a privacy risk, but you have to weigh that risk against the security of the military at overseas bases.

– Get the application notarized. If you don’t know a notary public, you can find one at every bank. Bring sure to bring a photo ID; a driver’s license is best.

– Mail the application to the BFS folks. Within a couple of days after they receive it, they’ll finalize your registration on the forums. This will let you see the military addresses of the soldiers who make the requests.

Part Two: Select the books to send.

You’ll see the soldiers’ requests on the BFS forums. Some cautions:

– Send what the soldiers ask for, not what you think they want. For example, many of the readers of this blog probably have books on alternative spirituality, magic, Wicca, etc. It’s a bad idea, not to mention rude, to send any such books unless a soldier specifically asks for them.

– Another important example: Don’t send porn or racy material, and don’t send explicit horror comics; even books with provocative covers may be a bad idea. The reason is that, for the most part, you’re going to send the books to Islamic countries. If the boxes are opened for customs inspection (see below), they’ll be opened by inspectors from that country, not the US military. If you offend their religious sensibilities, not only may you get in trouble, but you might earn trouble for the soldier to whom you addressed the package.

Yes, there’s a tradition of pin-ups in military posts that goes back decades if not centuries, but the Islamic tradition is older still, and we are supposed to be guests in their country.

Part Three: Pack up the books.

You can order flat-rate shipping boxes at no charge from the US Postal Service. It’s probably best to use those boxes, because they’re guaranteed to fall within the size limits for shipping to military APO/FPO addresses. You can get these boxes from any post office, but since I’m a lazy bum I used the Post-Office web site; they’ll deliver them free. (Since I eventually shipped 19 boxes, I got the 25-pack.)

As long as you’re ordering from the Post Office, there’s one more thing you’ll need: the customs forms (see below) have to be attached to the box with a clear pouch. You’ll want to order Customs Form Envelope 2976E. Once again, both the pouch and shipping are free.

For packing material, I used scrunched-up newspapers and pages from junk-mail catalogs. Aside from being cheap, it has the advantage that if you wish to ship via Media Mail, you can truthfully say that there’s nothing in the boxes except for written material (though it will contain advertising, which is theoretically not allowed in Media Mail). Make sure everything is packed tightly and nothing rattles; remember there’s a possibility that the package will be air-dropped.

As you pack the books, include a letter in each box. List the contents of what’s inside. This helps the customs inspectors, any military inspectors, and the soldiers. In the letter, include a wish for the soldier’s safe tour of duty and return home, and permission to share the contents with their fellow soldiers if they wish.

You’ll need packing tape to seal the boxes. The Post Office, Kinko’s, or any office-supply store sells rolls of tape in tear-off dispensers. You probably want transparent tape, so you can use it for the shipping labels and so the flat-rate markings aren’t obscured (though the latter is not important if you want to use Media Mail). This isn’t free, but two rolls were enough for me to ship 19 boxes, and the Post Office sells a two-pack for $7.

Part Four: Prepare for shipping.

Here’s where the Post-Office web site really shines. All postage rates are as of July 2011.

The cost of shipping a large Priority Mail flat-rate box is $12.95 to APO/FPO addresses. If you buy and print the shipping label via the web site, it’s only $11.95. I recommend this option; aside from reducing the expense, the web site will correctly format the AFO/FPO address for the label.

There’s an alternative: If a box contains nothing but books, CDs, DVDs, etc., it can be sent via Media Mail. The shipping cost is based on weight, and is less than $11.95 if the box weighs less than 25 pounds. However, you’ll have to cover the flat-rate markings; an easy way to do this is the wrap the box in paper from shopping bags. I did not take this option, because it requires the boxes to be accurately weighed; that means either having a good postal-quality scale or taking the boxes to the post office. It may also be that the Media Mail rates do not apply if you’re shipping to APO/FPO addresses. If they do, and if you have the wrapping paper, and scale or time, this can save you a couple of dollars postage per box.

In either case, I suggest buying the shipping labels from the USPS web site. I didn’t bother with the pre-printed gummed labels; I just printed the labels, cut them to size, and taped them to the boxes (see below). Note that shipping to APO/FPO addresses counts as domestic mail.

Here comes the annoying part:

Each box must also have custom forms. The form you need is Customs Declaration and Dispatch Note (2976-A). You can order these for free from the Post Office, but after filling out this form manually a few times, take my word for it: It is much, much easier if you use the web site to fill out the form for you.

Again, the convenience of filling out the form using the web site is that it can format the APO/FPO address correctly. The annoying parts of the form are:

– The weight of the box. I used my bathroom scale, which was probably accurate to within a pound or so.

– The list of what’s in the box, and the quantity. I kept it general (“10 books, 20 comic books”); I figured that if they needed a detailed list of the individual books, they’d open the box anyway and see the letter.

– The value of the items. I arbitrary gave it as $1/item, which is probably what they’d fetch in a used-book rack.

– Be sure to check that it’s a gift. In the Comments section, I cut and paste this notice from the Post-Office instructions for gifts: “Certified to be a bona fide gift, personal effects, or items”.

– After you download and print the customs form, you’ll have five copies of the filled-out form. The last one is your copy. Cut or fold the other four sheets along the dotted line. Don’t put the forms in the pouch yet…

Part Five: Label the boxes.

There’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle when you label one of these boxes for the first time. After that, you’ll know where to put things.

– Test-fit the customs pouch and label before permanently affixing them to the box. You don’t want them to overlap.

– I found it easier to stick the pouch on first, then tape the label.

– For the mail scanners, it’s important that bar codes on the shipping label not be covered by the packing tape. Plan your taping in advance.

– I found it much easier to put the customs forms in the pouch after it was stuck to the box. The pouch doesn’t seal; make sure the flaps overlap so the forms won’t fall out.

Part Six: Ship the boxes.

Once again, the Post Office comes to the rescue: You don’t have to haul the boxes to the Post Office yourself. You can use the web site to schedule a pickup. They’ll ask for the number of boxes and how much they weigh, but you’ll already know that from the customs forms.

Of course, if you can’t leave the boxes outside your door or wait at home for the carrier to pick them up, you’ll have to take them to the Post Office. In theory, you can just pile them on the counter without standing in line. In practice, check with the teller so you don’t set off a bomb scare. If the teller is busy because the office is crowded, wait in line so they can see you when you get to the counter.

Postscript: The BooksForSoldiers web site warns you that you probably won’t hear from the soldiers. I shipped 19 boxes of books, and heard back from only one soldier: the only one to whom I send comic books. Comics fans for the win!